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Rimbaud, Arthur (1854-1891)  

Because his writing stresses liberation, the French "boy-poet" Arthur Rimbaud, whose art is based solely on his individual creativity, is a progenitor of modern gay poetics.

Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud was born on October 20, 1854, in Charleville in northern France. Born of rural parents, Rimbaud enrolled in Charleville's Institution Rossat and then, in the spring of 1865, attended the Collège de Charleville where he earned his degree. He was an exceptional child, who excelled in academic work by mastering two levels in one year.

Rimbaud began writing very early, first in Latin, then in French. His first French poem was "The Orphans' Gifts" ("Les Étrennes des orphelins") of 1869. With the encouragement of his young professor-mentor Georges Izambard, he had written twenty-two poems by 1870. By the age of sixteen, he had published several poems in the journal Le Parnasse Contemporain.

In 1870, Rimbaud first traveled to Paris. His first sexual experience may have occurred there in 1871 in a barracks with a group of soldiers; his poem "The Stolen Heart" ("Le Coeur volé") may describe such an experience and may be interpreted in terms of sexual seduction or initiation.

Rimbaud met Paul Verlaine on his trip to Paris in 1870 and received an invitation to come to Paris in September 1871. Although Verlaine was married and ten years Rimbaud's senior, a homosexual relationship between the two men ensued. For the next year and a half, they were together in Paris in the Latin Quarter, in the cafés, and in the literary salons.

They traveled together to Brussels and London and acknowledged each other in their writing. Rimbaud, for example, playfully refers to Verlaine's eyes in his famous poem "Vowels" (1871). The couple may appear masked in the section of A Season in Hell (1873) entitled "Délire I": "Foolish Virgin, The Infernal Bridegroom."

Nearly all of Rimbaud's mature poetry was written during his love affair with Verlaine. The latter encouraged him in the creation of The Illuminations in London in 1872 and A Season in Hell in 1873. After the affair ended in July of 1873, when Verlaine shot him in the wrist during a violent quarrel, Rimbaud essentially abandoned his career as a poet.

After a Brussels printer published A Season in Hell in October 1873, providing a way for Rimbaud to send a few copies to his friends in Paris, Rimbaud's interest in his own work declined. During 1874 and 1875, he traveled widely in Europe. In the spring of 1876, he enlisted in the Dutch army, but soon abandoned that, preferring to travel to Sweden, Denmark, Greece, and Egypt, where in 1880 he was a coffee buyer and in 1887 sold guns.

Rimbaud died on November 10, 1891, at the age of thirty-seven. He is often regarded as the exemplar of the genius who abandoned poetry for a life of action.

Rimbaud's best known poem The Drunken Boat (Le Bateau ivre) was created in 1871 before his seventeenth birthday; it celebrates liberation, especially Rimbaud's liberation of the senses, and apparently evolved from the beginning of his relationship with Verlaine.

Rimbaud's artistic world is a world of symbols, hallucinations, dreams, and visions, exemplified especially in A Season in Hell and The Illuminations. One of his professed techniques was a "derangement of all the senses." Rimbaud's two letters (Lettres du Voyant) of May 1871 constitute a literary manifesto in which the poet is assigned the role of "clairvoyant," "magician," and "artist."

In his art, Rimbaud assumes the mask of diverse personalities, both male and female. In his letter to Izambard of May 13, 1871, appears a novel concept, "I is someone else" ("Je est un autre"). Is the "someone else" creative artist, persona, or another? Is it a mask for his sexual identity?

Rimbaud enhances his writing with motifs of love, music, fantasy, memory, myth, and adolescent visions. The section "Alchemy of the Word" ("L'alchimie du verbe," 1873) in A Season in Hell embodies Rimbaud's doctrine of "alchemy," "witchcraft," or "magic" since the section shows a preponderance of "poetic" words and creates an incantatory effect.

The Illuminations--a psychological autobiography in free verse and prose poems--depicts a myriad of settings, a fairy world of time, place, history, fiction, and beauty. Rimbaud concludes The Illuminations with the "genie": a being both human and supernatural, embodying affection, love, reason, and optimism. Written in the nineteenth-century French symbolist style, rich in poetic diction, the work employs symbols to represent ideas, objects, and states.

Although Rimbaud gave up poetry before he was nineteen, he can be described as a boy-poet-emperor, whose palace is his imagination, where he takes his friends on a fantastic voyage to an imaginary realm of magicians, faeries, gods, angels, and genies.

In some respects, Rimbaud redefines art and reinvents love by means of a liberation of art and self. Because Rimbaud's writing stresses liberation, he is a progenitor of modern gay poetics, influencing such poets and prose writers as André Gide, Jean Cocteau, Federico García Lorca, Hart Crane, and Jean Genet.

Several artists have sketched Rimbaud, but Verlaine's Rimbaud (1872) most memorably portrays the young poet as a genius, an example of the modern creative spirit, the boy-poet whose art is based solely on his individual creativity.

Clarence McClanahan


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A photograph of Arthur Rimbaud created by Etienne Carjat in 1871.
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Bonnefoy, Yves. Rimbaud. Trans. Paul Schmidt. New York: Harper Colophon, 1973.

Dillman, Karin J. The Subject of Rimbaud: From Self to 'Je.' New York: Peter Lang, 1984.

Fowlie, Wallace. Rimbaud. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Hare, Humphrey. Sketch for a Portrait of Rimbaud. New York: Haskell House, 1974.

Lawler, James. Rimbaud's Theatre of the Self. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Michon, Pierre. Rimbaud le fils. Paris: Gallimard, 1991.

Morrissette, Bruce. The Great Rimbaud Forgery: The Affair of "La chasse spirituelle." St. Louis: Washington University Studies, 1956.

Petitfils, Pierre. Rimbaud. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987.

Rickword, Edgell. Rimbaud: The Boy and The Poet. New York: Haskell House, 1971.

Starkie, Enid. Arthur Rimbaud. New York: New Directions, 1961.


    Citation Information
    Author: McClanahan, Clarence  
    Entry Title: Rimbaud, Arthur  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 24, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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